The drive to save the four ‘big cats’

There is something special about a lion, precious enough to make it a prized sighting on any safari. They are powerful animals but social too. Seeing a predator that can take down a buffalo on the African savannah is iconic.

A lion rests in a green thicket in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The number of lions in the park has significantly reduced over the years.

“You can’t get tired of seeing a lion. Every day, their behavior is different, from being authoritative yet so gentle to their young ones,” narrates Phillip Kiboneka, the proprietor of Kasenyi Safari Camp, on the northern savannah grassland tracks of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), in western Uganda.

“I hold fond memories of the experience of going out with the researcher who showed us footprints of lions and lionesses. We came across a juvenile pride. Their lead huntress had been poisoned. From then on, we wanted to protect the lions with other stakeholders and preserve Dr. Ludwig Siefert’s efforts through Uganda Carnivore Programme (UCP),” recounts Amy Gotliffe, conservation director of Oakland Zoo in California.

Efforts to conserve wildlife
UCP in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority is working towards conserving Uganda’s large carnivores, such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas, to prevent and minimize losses due to conflicts, while generating revenue for neighboring communities.

Dr. Siefert, team leader at UCP and a wildlife veterinarian who has been researching, practicing, and teaching in Uganda since the early 1970s, is often invited by UWA to safeguard the health of animals in Uganda’s savannah parks, with a particular focus on predators.

Losses and gains
James Kalyewa, a senior accountant at UCP makes reservations for tourists through UWA’s experiential tours program. Tourists pay UWA Shs184,200 and donate Shs36,800 towards UCP’s community conservation fund to partly compensate for genuine livestock losses due to depredation and enhance livelihood in QENP’s enclaves and partner communities.

Additionally, UWA’s partner communities benefit from its resource sharing agreement; 20 percent of park entry fees, and non-monetary user rights. QENP used to be more popular when there were more prey animals and predators.
“People come to Queen Elizabeth National Park primarily to see lions and leopards. Without those two, I don’t think Kasenyi Safari Camp would be there. We would not have a business,” Kiboneka adds.

Dwindling lion population
A 2015 report published by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) which saves wildlife, shows an estimated total lion population of 408 animals in the three main strongholds for lions in Uganda, namely Queen Elizabeth, Murchison, and Kidepo Valley national parks.

In 2000-2002, there was a disastrous decrease of more than 30 percent in Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area, from 206 to 144. In Murchison Falls Conservation Area, the survey team estimated an almost 60 percent drop from 324 to 132 lions. Only in Kidepo Valley National Park did the researchers detect an increase in estimated lion numbers, with an upsurge from 58 to 132.

Adverse effects on lions
Dr. Simon Nampindo, the country director of WCS, explains that the human population increase has adversely affected the lion and leopard numbers.
A count of the people that had settled around Queen Elizabeth National Park between 2006 and 2014, pointed to a figure in the range of 280, 000. There are 11 fishing villages and they have been expanding annually by 10,000 people.

Dr. Nampindo says there are about 40,000 cows both inside and next to the park. “In 1980, Uganda had a population of eight million people. We are currently about 42 million people. We are growing at a rate of 3.3 percent every year and there are projections that the population of Uganda will shoot to 80 million people by 2050. This might threaten the space for wildlife,” he observes.

Loss of forest cover
The conservationist also notes that in 1995, Uganda had 4.8 million hectares of forest cover but by 2015, the country had lost a significant percentage of that land. Today, Uganda’s forest cover stands at 1.7 million hectares, due to human activity such as settlement and agriculture.

This implies that some of the areas that were available to wildlife are no longer there – a huge loss to its genetic health. As a result, the human-wildlife conflict has dramatically escalated. The increasing population is encroaching on protected areas and more continue to engage in illegal activities.

Dr. Nampindo says: “In 2017, a student from the University of Queensland conducted a survey and we had only 100 lions left.” According to UCP, the combination of illegal prey hunts and illegal grazing in the park has set off a vicious circle of depletion of those species, attracting now fewer numbers of tourists to QENP. Hungry lions, leopards, and hyenas are forced into communities to survive and learn that it is easier and safer to kill illegally grazing livestock in the park.

Poisoning of lions
The long-term losers of those short-sighted community benefits will be the youth missing future employment opportunities as fewer foreign tourists are attracted to a landscape depleted of its former attractions.

“People feel frustrated when their livestock is being eaten by lions and that explains why they resort to poisoning the lions. As Dr. Siefert puts it, that is the selfish view that the community upholds. They want to have their cake and eat it,” says Nampindo.

Before UWA and UCP embarked on a joint fair share strategy of costs and benefits, Dr. Siefert reveals that neighboring communities would poison up to 12 lions every year. In 2008, out of 54 hyenas, 49 disappeared in Queen Elizabeth National Park – the species most susceptible to poisoning.

He adds: “After several years of carnivore population recovery, one community member in 2018 ruined all the joint efforts. Kenneth Mugyenyi and Robert Mugabe Nkome, UCP’s community scouts handling human-wildlife conflicts professionally, established that the claims of the alleged killing of a cow by lions actually happened in the park.”

“Such illegal activities cannot be rewarded and would be as bad as distributing snares and spears among poachers for the indiscriminate killing of prey and other attractive species,” says Dr. Nampindo.

Sensitize communities
Benjamin Sande, WCS’ lion conservation officer, was born and raised in a community around Queen Elizabeth National Park.

He argues that part of the solution to the loss of lions lies in sensitization of people within communities neighboring gazetted wildlife areas.
“There is a misconception that the park is for foreign tourists. People do not believe that the national park is for Ugandans and these are some of the stereotypes we are trying to deconstruct,” Sande says.

Amy Gotliffe together with California Conservation Society members and supporters of the zoo, undertake ecotours to Uganda and Rwanda to meet their partners and evaluate wildlife and community support projects every year.

“People on these trips want to learn about the complex challenges of conservation and get involved. We come to this park (QENP) because of the lions and the people living within the neighborhood. It is important that the lions are protected. Lions are beautiful cats. Both lions and the people living with them are equally close to our hearts” Dr. Nampindoadds.

Most sought after
Are you contemplating visiting Uganda but are you wondering which wildlife species to look out for? Well, Uganda is a remarkable tourist destination and some of the most sought-after wild animals include mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, African elephants, rhinoceros, buffalos, leopards, Rothschild’s giraffes, zebras, monkeys, crocodiles, and Uganda kobs. Wildlife is one of Uganda’s main tourist attraction as they attract thousands of people across the world.

What they said

“People come to Queen Elizabeth National Park primarily to see lions and leopards. It is important that all lions are protected. The community holds a selfish view that once lions eat their livestock or crops, they revenge by poisoning them. This poses a threat to wildlife in Uganda.” Dr. Ludwig Siefert-
Team leader, UCP

“The growing population has adverse effects on lion and leopard numbers. Between 2006 and 2014, a total of 280,000 had settled around Queen Elizabeth National Park. The forest cover has been reduced. This implies that some of the areas that were available for wildlife are no longer there.” – Dr. Simon Nampindo, country director, WCS.

If I had TO go for a gateway …

Rain Forest Lodge
It is beautiful, calm, and peaceful. I went there a few years ago but it is one place I would love to go to again with my family. It is a good outdoor getaway, not too far yet deep within the Mabira Forest. It is an opportunity to share space with monkeys and swim in the middle of the forest [Cleopatra Koheirwe]

Kyangabi Crater Resort
It has a magnificent view of Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Western Rift Valley. It is very serene and the surrounding area has huge gorges that look like huge basins with a lot of green, animal, and bird species. You can hear birds sing throughout the nature walks. You cannot help but marvel at God’s creation. [Andrew Mugyema]

Murchison Falls National Park
Masindi. The magnificent falls situated in this park are compared to none in the whole world. The hike from the bottom of the falls is exciting as one is propelled to hike higher, following the thunderous sound one encounters to the top of the falls. The park presents one with a variety of animal species, birds, and scenic views along the game drive and a wonderful boat cruise on the White Nile. [Aisha Nabwanika]

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